The woman in the front corner office makes personal calls on speakerphone all day, laughing, swearing and making disparaging remarks about her colleagues. I don’t even sit near her and I can hear everything from my desk – that is how I know a lot of the disparaging remarks are about me.
There is another guy on our floor whom I sometimes say hi to when I see him smoking outside the back doors, but he is usually looking at his phone and either doesn’t hear me or chooses not to answer. I don’t really understand what he does – research or something. He tried to explain it to me once, but then it was my turn to not listen.
And then there is the programmer from the floor above who hangs around the coffee machine telling jokes. He can be quite funny, but I’m like: this is a place of business. Luckily, he doesn’t often turn up before midday.
Welcome to my home office block, where my wife (a website designer), my two adult sons (one starting a new job, the other finishing a degree) and I have toiled remotely for almost six months. I have worked from home for so many years that I had forgotten what office life was like. Now I remember.
I work in a shed in the garden, but I used to have the run of the house during the day. Now, wherever I go, I represent a threat to someone else’s concentration. The kitchen table has two screens on it, with power cords permanently stretched across the room at knee height. My wife regularly seals off the sitting room for conference calls, shutting out the noise of the video meeting being conducted in an upstairs bedroom. We fight over stamps, batteries and the last of the milk. When the wifi gives out, we look at one another accusingly: you did this.
In many ways, this is just a radical extension of family life, but with work comes external pressure. The tyranny of the office leaches into the air. We lose our tempers with each other because we can’t lose them with remote employers, faceless clients or numbers that won’t tally. What makes it even more difficult is that none of us share a schedule. The kitchen is a particular fault line, where workers on hair-raising deadlines meet layabouts who take two lunch breaks.
But it is also a place where we sometimes drink coffee or beer on weekday afternoons, gossiping and complaining while answering urgent work emails with the words: “Leave it with me.” It is possible I am the only one doing that, but it is nice to have company.
Over the months, I have slowly adjusted to life in a busy workplace. I can tell my son is on a work call, for example, because he is pacing counterclockwise round the kitchen table as he talks. I know it is a bad time to start making meringues. If I wait, the urge will pass.
When the weather is warm and the windows are open, I can hear this same dynamic replicated in other houses in the street: families going about their separate jobs in close proximity. Lockdown has returned to me something I never thought I would have again, and never knew I missed: colleagues.